On this day, many moons back, I was caught in the Great East Japan Earthquake. I was in Tokyo when that happened. Here is my story of those dramatic days.
March 11, 2011 – I was at a lunch in Akasaka (downtown Tokyo) with two of my friends, Sakitsu san from the NHK World and Ogawa san of Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). I was on an official visit to prepare for the State Visit of our King, which was to happen two months later.
As we were eating, chatting and sharing the old times, the building started shaking. Mildly at first. “It’s normal,” one of them reassured me. But the quake only intensified and things started falling down around us. Some people started screaming outside. Sakitsu took out his phone and was rather shocked by what he saw on the mini-screen, “It is a big one. It hit off the coast of Fukushima. Tsunami alert along the Pacific Coast.” The emergency siren rang. Immediately he excused himself and rushed off. Ogawa, seeing me little dazed, asked me to follow him to his office – the TBS building, which is probably one of the safest buildings in Tokyo. I followed him. In the streets people were running all over the place. Another shake. I felt like I was trying to walk down the aisle of an airplane midair under severe turbulence. A big earthquake had just hit Japan.
The 9.2 magnitude earthquake has released an energy that was equivalent to 30,000 times the power of the atomic bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima during the World War II. But more than the earthquake (because Japan was prepared for it) it was the tsunami it triggered that devastated the north-eastern coast.Scenes of cities beings washed away, like in the movie Day After Tomorrow, were flashed on TV news over and over again. At the time of posting this article, over 3,000 people have been confirmed dead, as many were still missing and over quarter of a million have been left homeless or directly affected.
The response to the disaster was quick. Over 1.2 million people were evacuated within minutes after the tsunami alarm went off along the Pacific Coast – from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu islands in the South. Relief and recovery teams went into action even before the first wave of Tsunami hit the Iwate prefecture (which was closest to the epicenter). Trains, airports and subways were suspended and elevators in every building in Japan were disabled with clockwork precision. The Self Defence Force (Japan’s army) was put into action and the Parliament suspended the debate and the session to allow the government to deal with the crisis.
But what really amazed me was not the Japanese efficiency at work. Rather the courage and the dignity with which the people, even those who were directly affected, dealt with the tragedy. It is often said that the worst of times brings the best and the worst in us. In the case of Japan, it brought only the best. Although left with nothing for themselves and for their family, people lined up in the usual orderly manner – to get some food, buy some supplies or to make telephone calls from public fixed lines. The sense of community was simply moving. For all their technological advancements the core value of Japanese society, the social harmony, was still strong. Usually emotions would run high and looting and riots would take place where desperation sets in. This has happened in recent tragedies and turmoils all over the World. But not in the Land of Rising Sun. I couldn’t help but admire my in-laws (my wife is a Japanese) more than ever before for their great courage and the highest sense of civility.
My journalistic instinct was to go to the affected area but back home everyone was worried for me. I was instructed to leave the country with the first flight that I could catch. It was an order I couldn’t refuse. However, the country had almost come to a halt. I spent the time glued to the TV, rescued by my sister in-law and in her house, getting every bit of information that was coming out from Narita Airport. The transport authorities had shut down everything to assess the damages and the safety -and there were no flights in and out of Tokyo. The radiation leak from Fukushima nuclear plant presented another bigger concern.
Finally on 13th March I made it to Narita and boarded a flight bound for Seoul. Life in Tokyo had almost come to normal after two days although the after-shocks and the threat from the Fukushima nuclear plant kept coming. I called up Ogawa, Sakitsu and my sister-in-law, Junko, for taking care of me and sending me home safely. As the flight took off from Narita airport, I bid goodbye, for this time, to this country that had given me so much but that was going through, what Prime Minister Kan described as, the worst crisis since the WW II.
As we climbed higher I looked out of the window and saw the earth moving away and clouds slowly covering my second homeland. A deep sadness engulfed my heart. If there was one positive thing for me out of this incident, I realized how much my friends here and my in-laws cared for me and how much I have become closer to this country. I also realised how unpredictable life could be – even for a nation.
And as the aircraft veered right on its final trajectory towards Seoul, a bright light appeared in the horizon. It was Mount Fuji, beaming with the winter snow still covering its summit. Standing above a blanket of dark cloud that was now covering everything below us. I smiled tearfully at the sight and offered a little prayer. “Yes, Mount Fuji,” I thought, “You are the spirit of this Nation. Rising above all adversities.”
Whatever destruction or despair Mother Nature may have thrown on this Land, suddenly I felt confident that like Fuji san (as the Japanese refer to their favorite mountain) the people here would stand tall, rise above the situation to rebuild their nation and move on. They have done that in the past.They will do it again.
That is the strength of the Land of the Rising Sun.
(The original version was posted on March 16, 2011 from Bangkok in http://www.dorjiwangchuk.blogspot.com)